The bitter orange, also known as the Seville orange, sour orange, or marmalade orange, has been grown around the world since prehistoric times. It seems counterintuitive since this small, vibrant fruit is almost too sour to eat.
Instead, it is prized for its use in marmalade as well as its high levels of oil, which make it ideal for perfume. It also requires little maintenance in comparison to most citrus trees and is hardy enough to bloom in the wild.
With deep orange fruit, white blossoms, and a heady scent, the bitter orange tree is an eye-catching ornamental tree that is beautiful in any garden.
History of the Bitter Orange Tree
No one knows exactly how the bitter orange tree began, but it was probably bred from a pomelo and a mandarin orange. It was first grown in Southeast Asia but has since spread all over the globe.
Records of it exist in Europe as long ago as 1002 C.E. However, it may have been grown in the Pacific Islands, including Samoa, Fiji, and Guam, in prehistoric eras. Also called the Seville orange, it was widely grown in Spain by the Renaissance.
Europeans brought the orange variety to the Americas in the 1500s, where they flourished in Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Florida. The bitter orange and its relatives are still grown throughout the American South, Mexico, and South America, both in orchards and in the wild.
You can also find it in Africa and Asia, where it is used not just in cooking but also as a soap substitute and perfume additive.
Tree / Fruit Characteristics
The bitter orange tree usually grows about 20 feet tall but has a compact branch spread. It tends to stand very straight, making it a striking ornamental tree. It is an evergreen tree, so you can expect to smell the scent of its aromatic, deep green leaves all year round.
The tree has thorns that can grow as long as three inches, so you will need to practice care when harvesting fruit or pruning branches.
Similarly, its white and yellow flowers are extremely fragrant. These are often used in perfume and soap due not only to their oils but also their production of orange flower absolute.
The bitter orange itself is small and can either be round or oval in shape. It has a thick, deep orange peel with visible oil glands, which may make it appear rough or bumpy. The interior pulp is lighter orange and usually heavy with seeds.
The bitter orange tree grows best in tropical or subtropical climates. In the US, this means it is best suited for zones nine through eleven. However, the tree is a fairly hardy citrus variety and can withstand short-term temperatures below freezing.
Many people in colder climates also grow bitter orange trees in pots and move them inside during the winter. This lets them provide a warmer and more controlled environment and protects the tree from damage due to frost.
Size and Spacing
The bitter orange tree can range significantly in size. At full maturity, it may range from 10 to 30 feet, with the average tree reaching about 20 feet tall. It has a compact canopy and does not spread widely, which decreases its spacing needs.
For the best results, plant your bitter orange tree about 15 feet away from any existing structures, such as houses or sheds, or plants.
The bitter orange tree is a hermaphrodite and can self-pollinate, so you do not need to grow a cross-pollinator. If you do plant a second orange tree in the hope of increasing your fruit yield, make sure it is far enough away to provide adequate root and canopy spread.
Bitter Orange Tree Care
The bitter orange is an usually hardy citrus tree. Unlike most orange trees, it does not require an extensive amount of care. It can tolerate cooler temperatures and various amounts of sunlight.
Although it tends to grow best in tropical climates, it can endure freezing temperatures for short periods of time.
The bitter orange tree prefers full sun, defined as a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight every day. However, it will also flourish in partial shade, allowing gardeners more freedom with tree placement.
Like most citrus varieties, the bitter orange tree should not be overwatered. However, it does need regular watering and prefers soil that is loamy, allowing some amount of water retention. The main goal is not to let the roots get waterlogged, which can draw pests and cause disease.
The best way to water a bitter orange tree is to add some compost to the root system, such as potting soil and general leaf mold. Check it every few days. When the compost starts becoming dry, do some deep watering.
Deep watering refers to a special system of hydrating a tree’s roots. To do it, turn your garden hose on to a slight trickle. Nest it, running, in the roots of the tree and let it sit for about an hour. This will let the water penetrate deep into the ground.
Pruning is a vital part of caring for almost any fruit tree, as it cuts away dead growth and redirects nutrients to healthy, fruit-producing branches. However, the bitter orange tree has modest pruning needs in comparison to many citrus varieties.
Prune a minimum of once a year. Ideally, this should happen in the late winter to mid spring if you live in a warm climate. If you live in a cooler region, wait until at least March to grab your pruning shears. These should be sharp and clean in order to protect the tree.
Focus on cutting away dead or crossing branches. You won’t need to do much, since citrus trees generally produce well regardless of whether they are moderately or heavily pruned. Remember that the bitter orange tree has thorns, so make sure to wear gloves.
Diseases And Care
The bitter orange tree does not attract many pests and is generally fairly resistant to disease. Check the tree regularly for slugs if it is planted outside. If it is in a pot in your home, look for mites or aphids. Either of these infestations can be treated with insecticidal spray or soap.
The bitter orange tree should be fertilized several times a year. Ideally, this should happen in late winter, late spring, and early autumn. You can use an approved commercial citrus fertilizer for this.
Common Uses For The Fruit
As the name implies, bitter oranges are not usually eaten because of their extreme acidity. However, they have found a niche in some recipes, especially in preserves.
More widely, they are used in soaps, perfumes, and essential oils. This is because they have a higher concentration of oil in their peel and are more fragrant than sweet orange varieties. In some parts of the world, the juice of the bitter orange is used as an antiseptic.
What Do Bitter Oranges Taste Like?
It should come as no surprise that bitter oranges earn their name from their extremely sour, acidic flesh. Unless you are very adventurous, you probably won’t be eating these oranges straight off the tree. However, the juice and oil are often used to complement dishes or to make orange flavoring.
There are not many ways to cook bitter oranges – at least not on their own. However, they are grown so widely around the world that you will find them used in many cultural or regional dishes.
In many countries, the juice of the bitter orange is paired with meat or fish dishes. The acidity is similar to lemon juice or vinegar and can be used in many of the same ways. If you are feeling brave, try experimenting with the tart juice to elevate a recipe with chicken, pork, or fish.
Bitter oranges are most famously used in bigarade sauce, which is paired with the French dish duck Ã¡ l’orange. It may also be used as a sauce for beef, veal, pork, or offal.
Most of the time, you will not find anyone eating these oranges raw. The exception is in Mexico, where people enjoy bitter orange segments coated with salt and hot chili paste. You may also find uses for the juice in limited quantities as a garnish.
Canning / Freezing / Drying
Although they are far too acidic to eat on their own, bitter oranges are excellent for turning into preserves. They are widely used for making marmalade and are shipped around the world for this purpose.
The acidity lends itself perfectly to a sugary jam without becoming overly sweet or claggy. This variety also has a higher-than-average concentration of pectin, which helps it set more firmly in jam form. Because of this, bitter oranges are known as the quintessential marmalade orange.
It features widely in Scandanavian recipes requiring candied peel. To make this, the orange peels are first boiled to remove most of the oils, the source of the bitterness. This also makes them soft and chewable. They are then rolled in sugar and either added to baked goods or eaten as candy.
Like most other orange varieties, the bitter orange doesn’t freeze or dry well. Its other primary use is its oil and other extracts. These are widely used to make orange flavoring. This is used in everything from candy to ice cream, gelatin, gum, orange liqueur, and soft drinks.
Other extracts are sometimes used, conversely, as an artificial sweetener.
If you are interested in trying your hand at homemade liqueur, you may have great success with the bitter orange. Canning enthusiasts will also love its potential for making preserves and marmalade.
Health Benefits of Bitter Oranges
Despite their overwhelming taste, bitter oranges are full of vitamins. Like most other citrus varieties, they have a low calorie count and are high in fiber. This makes them excellent for improving digestion.
They are also high in vitamins A and C. These play an important role in supporting your immune system and tissue repair, as well as skin and eye health. You probably won’t be eating bitter oranges very often. But when you do, you can feel confident that you are reaping the nutritional benefits.
Where To Buy Bitter Orange Trees
You can find bitter orange trees for planting at many nurseries and other growers both in person and online. Amazon also sells it in the form of a rootstock; however, note that shipping to Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, California, Alaska, and Hawaii is prohibited by law.
You can find other types of high-quality orange trees for your back yard at Nature Hills Nursery.
Where To Buy Bitter Oranges
Bitter oranges are not always sold in large chain grocery stores, so finding them can be hit or miss. You may have better luck at a specialty grocery store or a Hispanic market, as bitter oranges are frequently used in Latin American cooking.
Wrapping Up The Bitter Orange Tree
Although the bitter orange tree won’t be your new favorite raw snack, it has many uses that are perfect for the niche enthusiast. If you love making preserves or liqueurs, this could be the perfect citrus tree for you.
But even if you’re not interested in consuming the fruit, this unique tree makes a garden ornamental like no other. Its dark leaves, white flowers, and heady scent are impossible to forget.
Excited for more orange content? Check out our orange trees page to start learning everything there is to know about your favorite citrus!